IT started with ‘a wooden hut and an Aztec’ and has grown to be the oldest private aviation firm on the island of Ireland.
Nestled at the bottom of the Seacash Road is Woodgate Aviation, a family-run business with a fascinating story to tell.
The firm is celebrating fifty years in business with a new book that charts how it grew from humble beginnings to a world-class company with a global reach.
Woodgate Aviation began life with just a single aircraft and today operates a fleet of piston and turbo prop aircraft, along with private jet management and handling services from its purpose-built, state-of-the-art hangar.
‘Woodgate Aviation – 50 Years in Northern Ireland’ was researched and written by aviation expert and historian, Guy Warner, who described the project as ‘one of the most enjoyable I have ever undertaken.’
Woodgate Aviation also operates the fixed-wing Northern Ireland Air Ambulance and the Isle of Man Air Ambulance and, last year, transported hundreds of patients to and from hospitals in Great Britain.
Health Minister, Robin Swann, who had to withdraw from attending the event because of the ongoing COVID-19 situation, sent a special message to the official launch event at Woodgate’s facility last week, and said: “The fixed wing Air Ambulance service performs an essential and vital function transporting patients who are unable to fly commercially to Great Britain to access specialist medical care which isn’t available in Northern Ireland.
“Woodgate Aviation have successfully delivered this service on behalf of the Northern Ireland Heath and Social Care sector for the last 11 years and I would like to wish them well as they mark this important milestone and look forward to their next 50 years in business.”
Woodgate Aviation Accountable Manager, David Shaw said the company made a conscious decision to expand its operations six years ago with a new purpose-built hangar facility.
Mr Shaw said: “The hangar was a step change for Woodgate Aviation.
“We have enjoyed expansion of all our services, from providing hangarage and management services for multi-million pound private jets to our Air Ambulance aircraft, along with the service we provide for Land & Property Services and, of course, providing re-fuelling facilities and maintenance by our team of aviation technicians.
“This is a business that is constantly changing. We now have a global reach and have an enviable reputation for the quality of the service we provide.
“We thought about the best way of celebrating our 50th anniversary and decided that this book by a respected aviation writer and enthusiast was the best way to proceed.
“It’s a great read, full of facts and with a few funny anecdotes thrown in for good measure.
“Our base looks nothing like what we had for the first forty or so years and hopefully the next chapter in our history will see us embark on further expansion and growth.”
Since 1969, Woodgate Aviation has been the leading provider of corporate, business, private and general aviation services in Northern Ireland, offering charter, management, maintenance, handling and of course, the air ambulance.
Woodgate currently operates a fleet of two Beechcraft King Air BE200 turbo prop and five PA31 Piper Chieftain piston engine aircraft.
These aircraft are utilised on private charters, Air Ambulance patient transfer and Ordnance Survey contracts.
The company also has access to thousands of entry level, light, super light, midsize and super midsize private jets, as well as heavy private jets for those North American or global charter requirements.
The new 33,000 square foot hangar was constructed in 2015 and at the time of completion, access to hangar floor was through Europe’s largest hydraulic door.
Author Guy said that Woodgate has lasted far longer than many other of their original contemporaries at Aldergrove.
“When considering the history of Woodgate, it is salutary to think of the other companies present at Aldergrove in 1969 Air Ulster, Aer Lingus, BEA, BKS, BOAC, BUA, BUIA, Cambrian, Servisair.
“Of these once well-known names only Aer Lingus remains.
“Even Aldergrove still had more than a decade to go before changing its name to Belfast International Airport and has undergone several changes of ownership itself since then.
“Why therefore has Woodgate Aviation survived and prospered while many other airlines, charter companies, air taxi firms and flying schools have gone to the wall?”
The answer is - slow growth, ‘not getting too big for their boots’ - by staying small, Woodgate was able to adapt and remain flexible in a volatile industry.
Company founder Mike Woodgate had come to Northern Ireland in 1958, having learned to fly two years previously at the Puffin Aero Club in Devon, gaining his PPL at the age of 18.
He found employment as a ferry pilot between Sydenham and Rochester and as an instructor with the Ulster Flying Club at Newtownards, then owned by Short & Harland.
When Shorts ceased to be involved, he and others formed the Ulster Flying Club (1961) Ltd.
In April 1965 an article appeared in the Belfast Telegraph about a young lady from Crossgar, who had learned to fly at the UFC, gaining her PPL in 1963.
One of Angela’s flying instructors was Mike. They married in 1967.
She was not the only member of her family to fly from Ards, as, inspired by his daughter's success, her father, Alfred Campbell, learned to fly in 1964.
Mike worked in England for a while, but had a driving ambition.
“I wanted to create things and run my own company.” he said.
He had saved a starting capital of £2,000, which even 50 years ago was not a huge amount, being equivalent to one year's salary in a good management position.
Both he and Angela favoured returning to Ulster and not just for family reasons.
Mike had sensed that there was a gap in the market.
He arrived at Aldergrove in May 1969 with a simple brief, he would fly anything, anywhere, provided it would fit in his aircraft and within his radius of operation.
“I never flew unless I got money for it,” he said.
He also believed in slow and steady progress, adding: “I lifted one foot off the ground at the time.”
Woodgate Aviation had its first office (which formerly belonged to Emerald Airways) in the main passenger terminal building, with a leased twin-engine Piper Aztec, and a single-engine Piper Cherokee.
To begin with, business was slow but there was very favourable local press and a successful advertising campaign.
Ironically it was the beginning of civil disturbances in the same year which put the company on a sound commercial footing.
As the international Press started to converge on the Province, so it was that Woodgate was on hand to media rapid transport for reporters and cameramen, flying over the burning houses and factories of Belfast.
One of Mike’s favourite jobs was bringing a pair of greyhounds to Shannon, their owner (who sat beside Mike) and their handler, who sat behind with the dogs, who lay down to sleep as soon as Mike started the engines, not waking until they were switched off.
Other jobs included taking riders, support staff and spectators to the annual Isle of Man TT Race.
A more unusual incident that Mike remembers was the day, on a bumpy flight over the Welsh hills, when 500 day-old chicks got loose in the cockpit of his Chieftain.
More conventionally, a local businessman used to maximise his time by the following regular schedule - all in a day - Belfast, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cardiff, Bristol, Dublin, Belfast, with an hour set aside for a meeting at each location.
On another occasion a burly passenger suffered an epileptic fit at 10,000 feet after leaving Kirkwall.
Mike managed to slide the seat back, told his other passengers to look after him, made a ‘Mayday’ call and an emergency landing at Wick.
In the late 1970s the company was awarded a nightly Royal Mail contract to Liverpool.
Aerial photography under contract to the Ordnance Survey and transplant organ transport, mainly to London and Liverpool, were added to the services offered. Aldergrove with its 24 hour opening suited the Woodgate ‘seven days a week, anywhere, any time’ maxim very well.
The DeLorean Motor Car company was a customer and on a couple of occasions, Woodgate flew the futuristic car designer John DeLorean himself.
Woodgate also carried racing pigeons to Jersey, where they’d be released for their return flight to Northern Ireland; hamburgers from Dublin to the Isle of Man and an envelope, containing a printed circuit board, to Cologne.
There were again a lot of trips to the Shetland Islands for Northern Ireland construction companies who had secured contracts from oil companies and from the Ministry of Defence, in the days before GPS.
Soon it would come time to Mike to hand over the reins.
Allan Keen was born in Holywood in 1948.
His father, Don, had been a Flight Engineer in the RAF and had joined Shorts in Belfast after the war to work on Sunderlands.
After working in his father’s pub and garage, Allan started flying in 1972 at Newtownards, his instructor being Squadron Leader Bert Evans.
He recalled: “One major incident stands out.
“The Ulster Flying Club had only recently leased the airfield to a local farmer for grazing his cattle, they would frequently move from one side of the runway to the other.
“I had accrued five hours training and was practicing my take off and landings, when the cattle ran onto the runway.
“Bert took control to try and avoid the cattle but unfortunately he hit a bullock with the left wing, killing the bullock and badly damaging the aircraft.”
He then went to Cranfield Flight Training School, obtaining his assistant flight instructor's licence in 1973. Back at the UFC he took up a post as assistant flight instructor to Ashley Gardner / Bill Eames (CFI) and his team. Ashley then moved to the IOM to work for Mike Woodgate at the Manx Flyers Aero Club.
Allan had already met Mike Woodgate, although they were ‘rivals’, and in 1982, Allan began to work freelance for Mike.
He also spent a period delivering Short 360s to the USA and China, including to Wuhan, the current epicentre of the coronavirus, which is sweeping the globe, before joining Woodgate full time in 1986.
In 1988 Allan bought the Isle of Man charter business from Mike.
The purchase included Aztec, G-CALL, Chieftain, G-CITY and the IOM charter office.
Allan’s son Johnny Keen had accompanied his father on flights for several years, helping to load and unload the aircraft but began flying training at Ronaldsway in 1988 at the age of 16 under the tuition of George Goddard, who was ‘very strict’.
He flew solo on his 17th birthday.
Over the next few years Allan reunited all the former divisions of Woodgate, sold by Mike, back to one entity.
“In Belfast business was booming, we had existing contracts for newspapers from Liverpool and for aerial photography with the NI Ordnance Survey using the specially adapted Aztec, G-BBNN, to which we added mail from Liverpool and Edinburgh, documents from Blackpool and small freight from Coventry.
“We had received recognition from the Royal Mail, receiving the silver award yearly for seven years, competition was stiff, there was only one, gold, silver and bronze award for all the UK providers of service to the Royal Mail which included land, sea and road.”
In 1991, Johnny had bought the Manx Flyers Aeroclub and was studying for more advanced licenses.
In 2000 Woodgate tendered for and won the ambulance contract for the Isle of Man.
The mail flights were lost in 2001 due to increased loads demanding larger aircraft, just as a new contract was gained from An Post, transferring mail from Dublin to Coventry.
Work was begun on building a hangar so that the patients could be transferred to the aircraft under cover.
Johnny Keen had taken a complete break from aviation in 1999 and traveled to Australia, where he contacted by John Moon and asked if he would to buy Woodgate Aviation IOM, which he did in 2001.
The father and son team dabbled in running an airline, but the venture was not successful.
A tender was won from the NHS in 2006 for transferring patients requiring organ transplants.
Since it commenced operating the air ambulance, 2500 patients have used the service, with 431 in one year alone.
In 2007, Johnny took over the charter work at Aldergrove and Allan fully retired in 2009.
Accountable Manager David Shaw said that the competition for the service was intense.
“We are an link in the chain for patients who must have specialist care.
“Patients want to get to hospital with the least amount of hassle or fuss.
“ Sometimes, the people we transport are in need of transplants to save their lives.
“Obviously, we have to be professional but you are not immune from the emotion of it sometimes, especially when you are transporting very sick infants in incubators who need urgent help.”
As part of the corporate side of business, Development Manager Keith McKay helps organise bespoke packages with limousine companies, luxury hotels and world famous golf clubs.
Keith also aims to develop on-board buffet catering packages, adding to a client’s private charter experience.
The company also still regularly flies journalists who are writing pieces about the local area, Belfast International Airport, the weather, and many other topics!
Currently there are 10 pilots, supported by administration and engineering staff bringing the total number to 35 including the Managing Director, Johnny Keen.
One of the pilots includes Jonathan Edwards, who recorded Investiture ceremonies at Buckingham Palace for 26 years.
Woodgate has also undertaken some sport sponsorship over recent year, including superbike rider Sam Lowes, who competes on the Moto GP circuit, and local golfer Jonathan Caldwell.
The Open, Golf Championship, during July 2019 at Royal Portrush was the most high profile sporting event ever to come to Northern Ireland and the final day of the event saw Woodgate Aviation record its busiest ever day of VIP private jet handling, with a total of 17 movements.
Former Woodgate pilot Con Law, who was present at the launch last week said: “My abiding memories of my years at Woodgate are of a feeling of belonging, of being part of a team, of the great kindness shown to me by many people, who gave of their time, patience, knowledge and encouragement, to help and guide a young enthusiast along the path to becoming an aviator.”
At the event, Guy Warner said that while modern young pilots build up their hours in flight simulators, his first flight on a Woodgate Aztec involved using a torch to see if ice was accumulating on the wings!
Tributes were also paid to Mike Woodgate, Allan and Johnny Keen and the loyal staff who had supported the company over the years, and hopes were expressed that the company will continue successfully into the next 50 years.